What The Social Network gets wrong about Harvard—and Facebook.

What really happened.
Sept. 30 2010 8:13 PM

You Can't Handle the Veritas

What Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher get wrong about Harvard—and Facebook.

The Social Network. Click image to expand.
The Social Network

Reliable sources inform me that there comes, in every human life, a point of terminal uncoolness—that uncomfortable moment when the music starts to feel too loud, the prime-time TV gets a little baffling, Velcro seems brilliant, and the tastes of mainstream people sound like groupthink from a distant, maybe child-eating, place. I think I may have reached that point, this week, on seeing the new Facebook movie. The Social Network, by writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, has been widely, roundly praised by critics I respect and frequently agree with. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis wrote about the movie as "a creation story for the digital age and something of a morality tale."David Denby, in The New Yorker, described a film that "pushes beyond simplicities," a report on "class, manners, ethics" that is Sorkin's "best work yet"—a film, in short, that's "absolutely emblematic of its time and place." On reading this, I felt sure it was time to take up boules, so out of touch with my own culture did I seem to be. The Social Network I saw was a rote and deeply mediocre film, much weaker than the best work of its writer or director. How could I, who should have been sucked deep into that on-screen universe (Mark Zuckerberg was one of the first people I met in college; we lived a couple of rooms apart as freshmen), feel so impervious to the movie's "emblematic" pull?

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Social Network was made to provide Facebook's half-billion users with a kind of origin myth, and that myth's luckiest feature, from a cinematic point of view, is its roots in the nation's most iconic ivory tower. People go out of their way to set movies at Harvard, because, like Vegas or Cold War Berlin, Harvard signifies. The things that Harvard signifies are the things The Social Network takes as plot points: It is a movie framed to be about—and here I'm quoting some unsubtle dialogue I scribbled down from the fifth row—"a world where social structure was everything." Fair enough. What's troubling, though, especially in a film that strives to capture a new 21st-century order, is the movie's totally regressive concept of that structure.

Sorkin and Fincher's 2003 Harvard is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture. Zuckerberg aspires to penetrate this world in order to make fancy friends and—well, do what, exactly? Wear madras? There were some kids at Harvard, in my era, with an interest in whatever gaunt remnants of old-style affluence remained, but the impulse was nostalgic and theatrical more than ambitious—people who arrive in the Ivy League these days do not come from black-tie dinners and wood-paneled rooms, nor do they enter such milieus after they leave. The kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco. Sorkin and Fincher's failure to discern the underlying culture of the place in the aughts may be why their portrait of today's Cambridge, Mass., strivers felt so tediously stock and two-dimensional to me: I recognized their Harvard, but only from Love Story and The Paper Chase, not my experience. To get the university this wrong in this movie is no small matter. In doing so, The Social Network misunderstands the cultural ambitions, and the nature of Zuckerberg's acumen, that made Facebook possible.

I'm not complaining here about the movie's superficial liberties, of which there are plenty. Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is a withdrawn, wounded recluse who spirals across campus with his head locked down, answering questions in a quick, high-strung rodent voice. The Zuckerberg I knew—not especially well; we occasionally used to have lunch together in the dining hall before losing touch sometime in 2003 or 2004—was outwardly friendly, often smiling, confident, inclined, if anything, to talk at outdoor volume. He was something of a geek, I guess, but at Harvard in 2002, this was not exactly a minority position. His room was on the first floor of our dormitory, where outgoing freshman seemed to be placed, and he had his desk positioned such that if the door was open to the hallway, as it sometimes was, he'd face the other kids coming and going on their way to class.

Still, who cares now? Eisenberg's portrait of an oppressed, psychologically wounded mogul fits this cinematic universe better than the real Zuckerberg would, and, anyway, it's beside the point to fuss over the nitty-gritty of the movie's accuracy: The Social Network is openly built according to the laws of narrative fiction, not documentary. What is not beside the point, given the film's ambitions, is whether these various details converge to nail the real-world-zeitgeist target they hope to. They don't. The movie paints a picture of a cultural world that is as black-and-white as it is outdated.

In Sorkin-Fincher Land, where character is mostly a function of vector and velocity, this is no mean problem. The movie dwells at length on the university's so-called final clubs, essentially long-standing nonresidential fraternities that style themselves as faux-patrician, culturally retrograde social spaces. (They are unrecognized by the university after refusing to go coeducational in the 1980s.) In Sorkin's script, the final clubs are a necessary gateway to proper social life and influence in college—which lets the movie throw itself in line with, and fall back on, decades of cinematic ideation about the social exclusivity of the Ivy League. In truth, those clubs were seen as basically vestigial curios, removed from the main artery of the school's cultural life: The notion that a crack Web programmer in 2003 would find his future blocked off by their fusty gatekeeping is risible. So, for that matter, is the movie's much more general implication that the Georgian halls, the snooty clubs, and the frequent semiformal wear composed an earnest ecosystem that Zuckerberg's own "social network" was vying with.

In point of fact, those old-Ivy brocades felt, to those of us who sometimes took them up, posed and false. Suites in dormitories that had once been built to house a single well-heeled Harvard man had long since been reapportioned to hold as many kids as possible. Students based in these dowdy halls would sometimes explain, between cockroach plagues, that living there made them feel part of the tradition of "old Harvard." It has long been the university's business to cultivate a nostalgic impulse toward this Elysian place, "old Harvard," and my generation of students was by no means the first to land on campus with a fixed and highly cinematic notion about what the Ivy League entailed. We may have been among the first, though, to have felt not much more than a summer-stock performer's intimacy with the script at hand.

Facebook, in those days called the Facebook, didn't rise as a scrappy force trying to conquer a patrician culture. That culture was already dead. Its rituals were theater. Any paths that may once have existed were now overgrown or paved and clotted with pedestrians all headed to the promised land. "Where is this old-boy network everyone is always talking about?" I once heard a socially adept and pristinely credentialed senior, trying for an internship, cry in a now-fluorescent-lit room in a hallowed building. The implication was that where it really mattered (mattered, at least, to the kind of hyperambitious upstart whose identity is predicated on a plan to, for instance, enter the White House), Harvard's cinematic Ivy League-dom was a hollow promise. A young person in 2002 did not, I suspect, have to attend a fancy East Coast college to come of age with a looming terror that the rites of high achievement were becoming far more sacramental than significant. Attending a school like Harvard did, however, make certain things stand in relief. One thing that stood out for me, that first fall of 2002, was that the song most often playing at the parties, the apparent soundtrack of our generation's independence, was a hit released 13 and a half years earlier, as a 7-inch single, by Madonna.

There was a sense in 2002 and 2003, in other words, that as a group of people on the verge of cultural maturity, we had little of our own with which to lay claim to the moment—besides, maybe, the social bonds and shorthand that arose from all being in this place together. That is the real beginning of Facebook's rise and the useful measure of Mark Zuckerberg's brilliance. What's often overlooked in recent talk of the Facebook founder's "robot" stiffness or bizarre, officious ideas about online privacy is what a canny and receptive cultural reader he was. Zuckerberg visited many of those Madonna-scored parties, too. Zuckerberg always seemed to be interested when you talked to him. Zuckerberg once told a mutual friend that he was not, and would never be, the best programmer around but that he had a knack for coming up with ideas that fit the moment and could carry. Which is to say that, in a class of some 1,600 students largely trying to follow dutifully the paths of alumni who'd grown into great men and women,Zuckerberg was one of a few among us actually thinking like an intellectually mature, creative person in his moment.

Sorkin and Fincher get this at a surface level, but beyond that surface, their account of Facebook's origins and rise is maddeningly generic. We seem to be meant to think that Zuckerberg grew and administered a global communications network in order to prove his power to a couple of blazer-wearing kids who cold-shouldered him once during college (or else, maybe, to get with the hot babes who, in the movie, frequent Cambridge and the tech industry as if a Miller High Life ad might break out any moment). We are told that people liked Facebook because it took "the entire experience of college," especially the exclusive final clubs, and transferred it online. This is a bit like saying books caught on because they put the whole experience of talking onto paper. What Facebook really gave us, for better or worse, was a new social and intellectual culture that we could claim, finally, as our own. During its early rise, the site allowed the social flavor of the Ivy League to include more than just playing dress-up and pretend. (We now played those games online, as our own.) These days, it's helped open a large, uncharted territory for a generation whose world first seemed, in many ways, competitively tighter and more predetermined than ever. There is the story of a kind of revolution here. It's just a shame The Social Network tells it in the style of the old regime.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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